Hire people who know things that you don’t and can immediately take ownership and run with it.
Start capturing customer reviews and NPS as early as possible and get as much feedback from customers as you can. All that helps you build products that your customers actually want, use, and recommend. This is our model at ZenBusiness.
Be transparent with your employees. Keep everyone engaged and involved and ask for everyone’s opinion. That’s what we’ve done at ZenBusiness since day 1.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shanaz Hemmati, Founder and Chief Operating Officer at ZenBusiness PBC. Shanaz has more than 30 years of experience in delivering technology-driven solutions. She is responsible for operations of the company from technology to customer success to financials and human resources.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Imoved to the U.S. when I was 16 years old from Iran. I came directly to Austin, Texas because I had an older sister here. Austin was a great, “small” town, and affordable. I went to UT, graduated in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and ended up in engineering because I came from a family of engineers. My mom always wished to “have a kid who was an electrical engineer,” hence my major and I was interested in computer science so I picked Computer Engineering as a minor. When I graduated, I decided I liked software a lot more than hardware.
After working for the state of Texas for 7.5 years, I decided to join the private sector and got interested in early stage companies. That’s when I started the next phase of my career with startups. I liked the fast-moving aspects of startups and how I could contribute. I started as a software engineer and moved to the data engineering side early on as I very much enjoyed working with databases, doing the data architecture and analyzing the data.
My previous role was with HomeAway, where I joined before their 1st anniversary, when the team was around 35 people. I had the opportunity to grow with the company through IPO and then the acquisition by Expedia. And, I left 1 year after the acquisition to take some time off and think about what I wanted to do next in life!
A few months later, I joined a few other entrepreneurs to start ZenBusiness. I picked this opportunity over others because of my passion for SMBs. I am a mentor (at Capital Factory and other places where I can provide help), and I really admire people that pursue entrepreneurship. They are motivated, courageous, and want to try out their idea. I encourage everyone to do so and take all the successes and failures as the learnings they can use in the future.
3.5 years later and I’m more excited about ZenBusiness today than I even was on day one. I can’t wait to see where we’ll be in a year or two from now.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
As the COO, I am “the right hand” of the CEO. And the whole role of being a COO and focusing on executing day-to-day operations has been very interesting. I always say we are a “lean and mean” team and get a lot done. With the growth of the company, one of my main focuses has been on how to scale our team, and where. Within a year, we have grown from 16 employees to over 100. In addition to that, we have acquired some companies and are working on restructuring our team to better reflect our business model moving forward.
It’s been amazing to see our team’s growth and how it has required all of us to put a more in-depth focus on our company culture and how to retain that. We send monthly employee surveys and I have been actively monitoring the responses to see what we need to do differently to support our employees.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is funny and embarrassing at the same time. Having an engineering background, I was helping out setting up all new computers for the whole division. I had on an above-the-knee skirt and high heels! As I hooked up one of the computers, with a few co-workers standing around, I was going to sit down to finish the configuration, but I didn’t pay attention that a co-worker had moved the chair that was behind me. I fell and probably got more exposed than I wanted to. Everybody was trying not to laugh and asking me whether I was ok. I was embarrassed but laughed at the same time not to make anyone feel bad. I learned not to assume anything!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Being a woman in tech has brought about unique challenges and opportunities. Most of the time, as the only woman in the room, you’re learning how to make your voice heard. At HomeAway, I was responsible for a global team, and that taught me so much about leading while keeping true to myself. At ZenBusiness, we are growing fast, and I make it a point to sustain our culture (which we are incredibly proud of). We also know that, by keeping our employees happy, our customers will ultimately be happy.
I have always been career-minded, with goals, and love solving problems. Maybe all that helped me not to give up.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Starting my first job, the economy was pretty bad at the time, and every job I went to had hundreds or thousands applying at the same time, and it was hard to get a job. The hiring manager at the time told me, “you gave me the impression you’d be a great performer and that’s why I hired you”. If that hadn’t happened, everything since then probably wouldn’t have happened.
I always wanted to be a great performer, I help everyone, I do everything I’m asked of. That has really shaped me over time and helped me. I was really motivated all the time and wanted to solve all the problems. In most cases that was to my benefit.
The people through my career, starting with my very first job, gave me the opportunity. Maybe they saw something I was not aware of in myself, but it encouraged me to improve myself and get to the next level. Wherever you are, who you work with at the time, teaches you a lot and makes you who you are.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I am not for a number”. Companies are trying to have a percentage of females/diversity, etc. and those are just numbers they’re trying to meet. To me, it’s not the number, but about actually including people. I want people to know they’re being heard and that they can have an opinion. There’s no gain in having “50% of your organization as females” if you’re not listening to them or including them.
I live by this lesson, both personally and professionally. Our team is very diverse, and we constantly survey and speak to employees to ensure they are happy with the place they work.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
ZenBusiness makes it easy for small business owners to start, run, and grow their business. We are a small business that is excited about helping other entrepreneurs realize their dreams of creating and growing a successful business. By making business formation and other business services easy and affordable, we hope to foster a small business community where owners can connect on a local and national level and help each other grow.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We became a Public Benefit Corporation because we want to give back and revolutionize the process of forming a business so that more people can realize their dreams and boost the economy.
As a female leader, diversity and inclusion are top-of-mind for me. Not only do we support female-founded small businesses through our PBC work, but we also hire a diverse team at ZenBusiness including a variety of genders, races, employment backgrounds, and ages. This is a big passion of mine, and we are proud of our diversity and the company culture it brings.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re constantly working on exciting new projects! Our most current one is our website product where we automatically generate a draft version using the business information to make building and publishing a website super easy for our customers.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I believe it’s moving in the right direction, but it’s not quite there yet. Referring back to my “I am not for a number” quote, I think many companies think that meeting quotas simply satisfy that requirement. It should never be about simply meeting a quota. Companies need to focus on inclusion. By definition, inclusion means “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” That “within” part is huge because it means that it’s a bottom-up approach, not the top-down approach companies often take.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The biggest challenge is the women in Tech are outnumbered by men and as a result not getting included or being heard.
We need to have more women leaders to mentor other women and help them navigate the career path.
We also need to get men involved in conversations and help them understand the challenges women face, make them aware of unconscious bias, and teach them how they can play a big role in helping women with their career development.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Listen to your customers, and listen to your employees. At ZenBusiness, we believe happy employees will bring happy customers.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Have them being part of your product/technology initiatives. After all, they need to fully understand what they are selling and be excited about it. They also need to communicate back customers’ feedback and help in building the right solutions for the customers.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Our focus has been on getting our formation service out there, which we have primarily promoted through paid acquisition. More recently, we’ve also put a focus on affiliates, content, and SEO. If someone Google’s “start a business in [state name],” we want to be one of the first things they see.
Moving forward, we want to provide even more resources and tools to small businesses. We’ll push out more content, focused on educating small business owners on how to start, run, and grow their business. We also want to interview our customers and encourage them to share their stories since many business owners, no matter the industry, have similar obstacles.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Our customer success team is world-class. We have put a strong emphasis on excellent customer service, which is a big reason why we’ve been aggressively scaling that team. They are available on phone, chat, or email, and are incredibly responsive.
- Forming an entity is not always easy, especially when each state has its own rules. Creating as simple of a flow as possible gives your users the best experience.
- Let the customers know that you’re here to help them. Ask them for their feedback, build and give them what they are asking for.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Many small businesses don’t survive after even just a year of having their business. We are working on providing resources for them to have further longevity. We’re doing this through our educational resources, but also in providing more tools to support them at all stages of their business lifecycle.
We speak to our customers on many different channels from chat to email to phone to surveys to customer interviews. We are very responsive on our chat on our website (around 2 minutes), and are always readily available to answer customer questions.This helps gain a deep understanding of what their needs are so we can continually provide that and expand our offerings to meet their needs as well as gauge the pulse of the customer when things are not going well, and make adjustments. We stay close to our customers, and never lose sight of that, this is a core commitment of our business.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- It’s not easy to do it on your own, find the right people who are passionate and complement each other to form the founding team. ZenBusiness is an example where our CEO asked a few of us to join on day 1 as founders.
- Hire people who know things that you don’t and can immediately take ownership and run with it.
- Focus on building for the problem you’re trying to solve and search and subscribe to point solutions that you can easily integrate with. We could have built an order management system but instead decided to use Stripe for both order management and payment processing. That saved us a lot of time to build everything around the formation process.
- Start capturing customer reviews and NPS as early as possible and get as much feedback from customers as you can. All that helps you build products that your customers actually want, use, and recommend. This is our model at ZenBusiness.
- Be transparent with your employees. Keep everyone engaged and involved and ask for everyone’s opinion. That’s what we’ve done at ZenBusiness since day 1.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would be the “let’s all dance together” movement. Music and Dancing is energizing and makes people happy. Happy people accomplish more and help others more.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
That’s a hard question, there are so many!
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Oprah Winfrey. She has been through a lot in her life and has accomplished a lot. She is a genuine human being and so inspiring. I like to know what she would’ve done differently in her journey, the issues on her mind these days, and how can other women help make this a better world.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!